Wednesday, June 18, 2008

What is so great about Indika?

Can an Indian restaurant serve Houston's best food?

In my annual top 10 list, I ranked Indika #1.

My brother thought the choice was strange. He likes Indika. But he admitted a prejudice -- the assumption that the best restaurant in town will serve food that is French, Italian, or modern American.

He didn't argue this prejudice is correct. He just admitted he has it.

He is not alone. In the West, we are taught to think that that the world's best cuisine is French. Italian is second (unless you ask an Italian). I thought like that for years, but am beginning to challenge it. Other cultures have cooking traditions that are just as rich, diverse, and sophisticated. Consider China, India, Peru.

It is not the tradition a restaurant chooses that makes it great. It is what the restaurant does with that tradition.

Creating a new language

A handful of Houston's great restaurants borrow from a particular tradition, but create their own unique language outside of it. The list includes:

Cafe Annie - Robert Del Grande developed a unique style of Franco/Southwestern cuisine unlike any other restaurant in the Southwest. Cafe Annie's sauces and preparations are distinctly Cafe Annie.

Hugo's - Hugo Ortega has created a style of Mexican cuisine that is different from Mexican food anywhere else.

Feast - Although it borrows from British pub food and the head-to-tail movement, Feast is developing a food language of its own.

These restaurants all have a unique style. Uniqueness alone will not make a restaurant great. But it is particularly impressive when a restaurant makes great food that is also wholly unique.

Indika's language

Most Indian restaurants in America fall within one of two or three styles. Whether your are in Houston or Boston, you can get the same dish -- prepared almost the same -- from one restaurant to the next.

In contrast, Indika's dishes are one of a kind. It makes sense that Indika's chef, Anita Jaisinghani, once worked at Cafe Annie. She does the same thing to Indian food that Del Grande did to Southwestern food at Cafe Annie -- turning it into a uniquely personal creation of the highest quality.

Below are some photos from our visit to Indika last Saturday. The dishes are roasted stuffed Karella (bitter gourd), mixed green salad with potato goat cheese cakes, uttappam with spiced calamari and coconut chutney, and the vegetarian plate (7 items including goat cheese fritters, pickled eggplant, cucumber salad, curried mushrooms, pasta in soup, and vegetarian kofta in sauce).

My western food vocabulary is inadequate to describe Indika's food. I don't know all these flavors, ingredients, and spices. I can only say that every dish was alive with flavors and contrasting textures. It was like a party in my mouth.

One complaint: Indika's menu does not seem to change much. It is one thing to make fantastic, unique dishes. It is something else to come up with new ones every night.



Misha said...

Here's something people so intensely insecure about Houston's position in the food world miss - there are few few restaurants like Indika in the US. Same goes for Kiran's, which isn't as distinctive as Indika, but definitely one of the top Indian restaurants in the land.

Even in UK, where Indian food is far more established and average Indian restaurant is head and shoulders above US counterparts, there are very few innovative Indian chefs. Although I did not visit Rasoi when I was in London, it was one of the few restaurants I am aware of that focus on taking Indian cuisine to the next level.

I do wish Anita Jaisinghani spent more time making sure that food was consistent, than minding the front of the house. That's the one thing we lack in Houston - obsessive attention to execution that occurs naturally in more competitive markets.

Anonymous said...

Heh. I'm proud to say that I don't have a food prejudice with regard to French cuisine. I know, like you said, that it's supposed to be the pinnacle of cuisine, the cuisine towards which all other cuisines aspire... But I've just never felt that way about French food. For the most part, it's too sauce-based and too ornate for me. As the Emperor would say in "Amadeus": too many notes.

The French dishes I do enjoy are simple and straightforward: coq au vin and boeuf bourguinon and the like. Call me a heathen, I guess. But I believe that today's French cuisine is really a self-perpetuating and highly self-promoted idea, that began with Escoffier and that people have bought into ever since.

Does this mean I'm going to food hell? Or maybe I'll just be ex-commfoodicated?

anonymouseater said...

Misha - Yeah, I went to the best Indian fusion restaurant in New York a few years ago, and it did not compare to Indika. We really are lucky to have it.

Sheeats - Good point about Escoffier. He probably gets the credit for boosting French cuisine above Italian cuisine in Western consciousness.

But I don't want to sound critical of French cuisine. So many of Houston's best restaurants are primarily working out of the French tradition -- Cafe Annie, Marks, Le Mistral, Backstreet, Soma, Gravitas, Mockingbird, T'afia. (Plus, my name and some ancestors are French, and I do prefer French wine.)

My point is that a handful of other cuisines that are competitive with France. And they are not all European.

Anonymous said...

I ate at Indika a couple of weeks before you and ordered the vegetarian sampler. It had 9 dishes, and looked quite different from the one in your picture. So even though the names on the menu may not chnage much, maybe the dishes themselves do.

Anonymous said...

What Escoffier changed about French cuisine goes far beyond taste. The implication with French cuisine is that most aspects of our dining experience have been based around changes he established in the restaurant. For example, moving to service a la russe. So a largely ironic aspect is that in America no matter what the cuisine we're still bound within a French context. It's a rather rich tapestry.

anonymouseater said...

last comment: I had read that Escoffier helped create the modern restaurant. But I did not know about his influence on the French adoption of service a la russe. My wife and spent much of last night researching and talking about that fascinating fact.

Plus, I agree your argument: most American restaurants are French influenced to a lesser or greater degree.

Peggy said...

I finally had a chance to eat at Indika's for lunch today and can't agree more that it belongs at the top of your list. I had the Bhel Poori Salad as a starter (a puffed rice dish) and the Shrimp and Scallop in a Saffron Curry, subbing the mint salad for the okra. Amazing, exquisite flavors, smooth but tangible heat - a party in the mouth alright! Absolutely top notch. My cocktails were great as well (the Jaipur - perfect for summer and a great accompaniment to the Bel Poori; and the Anarkali - flavorful, but not so suited to my food.).

I'll be back....

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